About six years ago, when I was writing my first book – a collection of spiritual profiles of well-known people based on face-to-face conversations I’d had with them about faith – folks often would ask me who I most wanted to talk to if given the chance.
At the time, my answer was three-fold: Billy Graham, Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu.
In the intervening years, I've been blessed to have met and talked with, however briefly, Tutu – “The Arch,” as we call him. But I have yet to meet Graham or Mandela.
It is my hope and prayer that, Insha’Allah as my Muslim friends would say, I might have the chance to do so before both men – true heroes of mine and no doubt millions of others around the globe – go home to Glory.
Both Madiba and Billy are 93 years old. In fact, yesterday (11/7) was Dr. Graham’s 93rd birthday.
The world is richer to have these Lions of Grace walking among us still on this side of the Veil.
I can say with all honesty and without any exaggeration that I can think of no one alive today whom I respect more than Dr. Graham. Although I do not know him personally, he is more dear to me than I can express. It is always an honor to say that the great preacher and I share an alma mater, Wheaton College in Illinois. It was while I was an undergraduate that I came closest to meeting Graham -- on the steps of the student cafeteria. He was going in for lunch as I was going out on the way to class.
A brush with greatness. A glimpse of grace, if you will.
On the wall of my home office hangs a photograph of Dr. Graham taken by a USA Today photographer at the evangelist’s home in Motreat, N.C. I won the framed photo in an auction at a Religion Newswriters Association convention a few years back and it is among my most prized possessions.
In the photograph, Dr. Graham is seated in a wooden chair, dressed casually in dungaree-blue slacks, an open-collar shirt and red sportcoat, and he looks straight ahead, his face in profile to the camera lens. “America’s Pastor,” as he is often called, is looking into the distance, to a place out of frame – his gaze fixed on something we cannot see.
I cherish that photograph of Dr. Graham for myriad reasons, but perhaps most importantly because it reminds me of the gift of vision – spiritual vision – to see things that are not of the physical realm. A sacred and holy perspective. An orientation of the heart and mind that looks beyond itself, to the Big Picture. To the More.
It is, perhaps, a vision of faith – the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things not yet seen – seen through a lens colored by grace, mercy and divine love.
Surely Dr. Graham has such a vision – a mighty gift he has shared with the world for more than six decades. It is a gift he imparted to me as a child, sitting in the balcony of an old auditorium at Yale University in my native Connecticut in the mid 1980s, watching him preach during one of his famous crusades.
Unlike so many other famous preachers and evangelists, when I think of Dr. Graham my mind goes to only one place: Jesus. His message has rarely veered from the simple and simply powerful message of the singular Gospel. What sets Graham apart from many of his colleagues and contemporaries in ministry is that singularity of vision. He has largely avoided the lure of political (read: worldly) power and glory. His gospel message rises above petty partisanship (of any flavor), presenting a crystal clear picture of God and God's love for all of us and God's redeeming grace for all of creation.
In that sense, there is Dr. Graham and then there is everybody else.
He stands alone like C.S. Lewis' Aslan, a mighty voice for love, redemption and second chances, at once roaring and tender, fierce and yet authentically welcoming.
Back in 2005, when I was writing that book I mentioned earlier, The God Factor, I had a conversation with another brother in the faith who felt the same way I do about Dr. Graham. That brother, Bono of U2, is another vessel God used to speak life-changing grace into my young ears.
Because Bono's story has stayed with me so vividly since he first shared it with me, I wanted to share it with you, as together we give thanks for Dr. Graham's 93 years as a sojourner in this realm.
“Over the years,” Bono told me, “I met some preachers who did connect with me, for sure, and whose words return to me. I remember hearing about this fellow called Billy Graham. Church people would push him on you like your friends at school would push Elvis Presley records. Actually, they looked kind of similar – both stars from the South who spoke with a twang and had giant crowds come to see them.”
Back in 2002, Bono received a surprise phone call from someone in Dr. Graham’s office saying that the preacher wanted to give Bono and his U2 bandmates a blessing.
“I told them, I said, ‘This is a big deal. This is BILLY GRAHAM!’ And they all said, ‘That’s great. But we’re in the middle of a tour.’ So I rented a plane and flew there right away in case he might forget. I was picked up by his son, Franklin, and driven a couple of hours up to their house. I met briefly with himself and his wife, Ruth. I think I’ve mentioned to you before that the blessings of an older man mean a great deal to me. Particularly this man.
“I gave him a book of Seamus Heaney poetry, and I wrote a poem for him in it,” Bono said.
That poem – handwritten on a piece of 8 ½” x 11” paper in black felt-tip pen – now resides in the Billy Graham Library’s permanent collection.
Bono’s poem for Dr. Graham reads:
The journey from father to friend
is all paternal loves end.
it was sung in my teenage ears
in the voice of a preacher
loudly soft on my tears
I would never forget this
or its lyric voice that gave my life
a meaning, that wasn’t there before.
a child, born in dung and straw
with The Father's love and desire to explain
how we might get on with each other again. …
We give you thanks and praise for the gift of your child Billy.
May you protect and keep him, strengthen him in body and mind,
May you give him a peace that surpasses all understanding,
A vision that never strays from your perfect Love,
And a voice that will continue to declare your grace, mercy and redemption,
All the days of his life and beyond.
Happy Birthday, Dr. Graham.
Thank you for blessing all of us.